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WWE's Growing Problem with Transitional Champions

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2022

WWE

By now, it's clear Big E was just WWE's latest example of what has become an increasingly worrisome problem for the company and fans: the transitional champion.

Big E's rushed cash-in and big win had the potential to give him a Drew McIntyre-esque rise to becoming one of the company's next big solo acts. He could have taken that momentum into WrestleMania and been the beloved babyface with the unique in-ring skills, never mind his world-class character and mic skills.

Instead, Big E's title run consisted of going back and forth in forgettable feuds with Bobby Lashley, Kevin Owens and tag matches, plus an outright loss to Roman Reigns in a champion vs. champion matchup. He then dropped the title to Brock Lesnar in a Fatal 5-Way at the Day 1 event, with Lesnar only being added to the contest a few hours earlier.

So instead of looking great against the best of the best and getting some strong booking and storytelling, Big E looked like a chump, even eating the pin. And now it's effectively his fault and he's the one who has to climb the ladder again, convincing both his bosses and the fans that he deserves another shot. Andrew Zarian on Wrestling Observer Live even reported Big E was originally scheduled to win the Fatal 4-Way (h/t Randall Ortman of Cageside Seats).

It's shades of Kofi Kingston getting squashed by Brock Lesnar when SmackDown first moved to Fox, only for him to never mention it again. Difference being, Kingston at least had some solid booking during his transitional run. But once the schedule—meaning WWE's and those of part-timers like Lesnar—demanded it, his time was up and he wasn't fit to play with the big boys anymore.

And that's the big problem with the transitional champion—there's an expiration date that's incredibly easy for fans to read. Why get emotionally invested in a guy like Big E when it's so clear in WWE's mind, at least via its booking, that he won't get an extended run?

That's what made the McIntyre push so exciting—WWE anointed a guy, backed him and ran with him for a long time. Though the further we get away from that, the more it seems like WWE only did it out of concerns guys like Lesnar wouldn't be available during the pandemic.

There is the "smart business" angle to consider. Having a name like Lesnar stand as a top champion going into WrestleMania will earn the company some eyeballs it wouldn't necessarily have otherwise.

But it's worth wondering whether that even matters anymore. WWE's reliable television ratings keep the dollars rolling in from broadcast deals. The money from shows in Saudi Arabia isn't going to slow. Reliance on old-school pay-per-view buys is a thing of the past. All Elite Wrestling, before CM Punk and Bryan Danielson, didn't have a Lesnar or Goldberg type to sell to more casual wrestling fans, and let's just say that promotion's ratings have been fine, whether on par with or even surpassing WWE's in spots.

So it's fair to wonder why WWE feels the need to keep falling back into these old ways.

And hey, maybe in the past, the idea of a transitional champion was an excellent one. It gave fresh faces a chance with belts in top spots, rewarded hardcore fans and gave off an anything-can-happen vibe to wrestling programming.

But for WWE right now? It's the equivalent of stepping on a rake and smacking oneself in the face. It's no secret that the company has had a heck of a time trying to build new top guys and has an over-reliance on part-time acts. It's no secret that this problem has only been worsened by the arrival of AEW, which has built its own megastars from the ground up alongside established names. And it's obvious that favoring splashy moments over coherent storytelling has hurt everyone.

It's worth thinking about the Superstars themselves. How many are looking at the treatment of somebody like Big E or the 80-plus Superstars released by the company in the past year alone and eyeing other promotions?

For fans, it has to be annoying because we know where this is going. It's WWE booking 101: Lesnar will fight Bobby Lashley at the Royal Rumble, where he'll lose the title because of interference from Paul Heyman. That lets WWE get back on track for Lesnar-Reigns at 'Mania without doing a champion vs. champion or a title-unification stipulation.

Meaning, Big E and everybody else involved in the Raw title scene got railroaded on a whim to enable Lesnar-Reigns. Whoever gets the shot at Lashley (or whoever the Raw champion is by 'Mania) will be in an afterthought of a match at the Shows of Shows because, frankly, nothing matters besides the Lesnar-Reigns matchup. Instead of meaningful matches and build for the Raw main event scene, it will be spinning its wheels in mud.

Anything beyond this, no matter how mediocre or different, will be stunning and largely well-received from fans because it would be such a disruption from WWE's normal behavior. But even if it's Big E getting all the way back to contending, even winning the Rumble and triumphing at 'Mania, the handling of his time as transitional champ will still sting and make the long-term building task more difficult.

The theme of a self-inflicted wound was brought up earlier for good reason. What makes the hiccups with star-building and the transitional champion miscues so agonizing for long-term WWE fans is that the mistakes seem so obviously easy to avoid.

WWE is good at capitalizing on moments in high-pressure spots but has no idea how to follow up on them. Big E winning it all, Becky Lynch returning to win a title over Bianca Belair and even Lesnar's win on New Year's Day were all good moments with terrible follow-ups that hurt everyone but those who were already established.

This mishandling of talent, even when giving guys like Big E a big win and title run, has a ripple effect of sacrificing long-term fan investment in favor of a small ratings pop and boost in social media engagement numbers here and there, and it probably isn't doing locker-room morale any favors, either.

And above anything else, it's a shame Big E is another world champion whose reign is likely to have been just a flash in the pan.

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